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Biotechnology

We still don’t know enough about the omicron variant to panic

The variant has caused alarm and immediate border shutdowns—but we still don't know how it will respond to vaccines.

November 29, 2021
masked travellers at Heathrow airport
AP

The news: Just five days ago, South African scientists informed the World Health Organization that they’d identified a new covid-19 variant. The situation has escalated rapidly since then. The variant, known as B.1.1.529, has already been found in many countries across the world. On Friday it was designated a variant of “concern” by the WHO, which opted to name it “omicron,” the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, following the organization’s naming system.

Governments are reimposing border restrictions and closures, as well as new measures to mitigate covid’s spread among their populations. Health ministers from G7 countries are set to meet today to discuss their response. 

What we know: Viruses mutate all the time, and that isn’t cause for alarm on its own. Part of the reason why the omicron variant is worrying people is that it has so many mutations in its spike protein—approximately 30, which is roughly double the number delta has. This protein is the part of the virus that helps it to enter human cells. Preliminary evidence suggests this variant brings a higher risk of reinfection, according to the WHO.

The omicron variant has been identified in at least 15 countries already, mostly in southern Africa but also in the UK, Europe, Hong Kong, Canada, Israel, and Australia.

What we don’t know: Amid all the panic, it’s important to remember that we still know very little about the new variant—and we’ve been worried before about variants that have come to nothing. The crucial questions are whether it increases transmissibility, whether it worsens health outcomes (thus pushing up deaths and hospitalizations), and, crucially, whether it erodes immunity afforded by vaccines or previous infections. We don’t have firm answers to any of these questions yet—although it seems likely, given the mutations, that it will affect the effectiveness of vaccines to some degree.

If that’s the case, then vaccine manufacturers will have to move quickly to come up with new versions. Luckily, with mRNA technology it is relatively easy to reformulate a vaccine. Moderna’s chief medical officer, Paul Burton, told the BBC on Sunday that his firm could have a new booster—one tweaked to handle omicron—ready to roll out as soon as early next year.

Researchers around the world are now racing to gather the data we need to know how worried we should be. We also don’t know exactly how omicron arose. Experts have long warned that uneven global vaccine access—South Africa, where omicron seems to have originated, has a vaccination rate of 35%—poses a global risk because it gives the virus more opportunities to mutate.

What you can do: As has been the case throughout the pandemic, the best thing you and your loved ones can do to protect yourselves is to get vaccinated. If you are offered a booster shot, take it. While it’s possible that omicron might degrade vaccine efficacy, it won’t eradicate it altogether.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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